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Maya Maskarinec Considers How Christian Sanctity Transformed Early Medieval Rome

February 10, 2014
Terracina
Early 8th century fresco from St. Sabina
San Venanzio Chapel at the Lateran Baptistery
St. Passera, Rome
St. Giorgio in Velabro
Maya Maskarinec in the AAR library
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Maya Maskarinec is the winner of the Phyllis G. Gordan Pre-Doctoral Rome Prize in Medieval Studies and a Ph.D candidate in the Department of History at the University of California in Los Angeles.

What part of the United States did you come from?

I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. I haven’t lived there since I left for college, but I return whenever I can. It’s an incredibly beautiful place and, as the crossroads of the Pacific, I think growing up there shaped my interest in how people and ideas travel. Now I’m a graduate student in Los Angeles, at the University of California.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

My project considers how Christian sanctity transformed early medieval Rome. Both the monuments and the texts that I’m working with are in Rome, so there is no substitute for being here to examine these materials firsthand. Moreover, since I’m interested in the urban environment of the early medieval city—how churches were placed in relationship to earlier buildings and each other—there is no better way to gain an appreciation for these relationships than exploring Rome on foot. And, I must admit, I also applied for the Rome Prize because I find the many layers of Rome so endlessly fascinating that I could imagine no lovelier way to spend the year than studying Rome from atop the Janiculum.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

It is hard to choose one. My favorite pastime since I’ve been here in Rome has been visiting churches on their saints’ feast-days. The celebrations vary tremendously and I never know what to expect beforehand, but they are always captivating. Some of my favorites have been a beautiful choir for the feast of St. Cecilia, the blessing of lambs for St. Agnese’s day, a procession of St. Chrysogonus’ statue to visit the neighborhood churches of Trastevere, and the church of St. Eusebio filled with dogs, cats, fish, and other pets to celebrate the feast of St. Anthony. It’s exciting to experience how the cult of saints that I study in the 6th-9th centuries continues in the modern city, adapted and adjusted to its new surroundings, but also with such strong echoes of the past.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

Most of all, I would say that since I’ve been here the overarching vision of my project has started to crystallize in a way I hadn’t expected. I’ve been working on many different stories and as I get caught up in the details of each, the big picture fades into the background. The past months of conversations, walks through the city, and an atmosphere that is somehow conducive to thinking big, have sharpened my thoughts.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

I’ve had different sorts of breakthroughs in the course of my work here. Having a group of fellow scholars at the Academy collectively read and give feedback on a chapter I was working on was a wonderful way to rethink and take stock of my project. A trip to Terracina, about 50 miles southeast of Rome, made my work suddenly come alive. The legend of one of the saints I’m working on takes place at a pagan temple situated on a hill in front of the sea in Terracina; climbing up to the remarkable ruins of the Roman temple there made it clear to me just how compelling of a backdrop this was for the legend. Recently, I had a delightful moment when, in realizing how much 9th-century efforts to authenticate saints’ cults were replicated and carried on in the 16th century, I was able to stroll down to the Vatican library and take the 1586 edition of the Roman Martyrology right off the shelf to compare.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

What I most look forward to in my project is whenever I stumble across a reference to a new building, artwork, relic, or text that I didn’t know about and can hunt down in Rome. Especially discovering small libraries, tucked away in corners of Rome, often in buildings that I have walked by unwittingly, is a real delight.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

The answer sounds banal, I know, but it is how much Rome changes with the weather. Being up here on the Janiculum with an incredible vista of the whole city, I wake up alert to the subtle, or not so subtle, changes in the weather. On clear days in the winter, one can see the mountains in the distance covered in snow. For the past days it has been pouring rain non-stop and the Tiber has risen enormously. But what is most surprising to me is how the feel of the city, of its inhabitants and its many tourists, but also the buildings themselves seem to change with the weather. It amazes me how one can walk down the same street again and again in Rome, but based on the time of day, the light, the people, one always notices something new.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

It’s important to me to continue improving my Italian while I’m here in Rome and so I’ve been taking Italian lessons. I also like to plan my free time in the city around the places to which my work takes me (whether libraries, monuments or talks that I want to attend). That always gives me the opportunity to walk through Rome and try out a new route through the city, connecting the different places where I want to be.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

Strolling through the city or reading in the library, I come across so many intriguing curiosities. I’ve been keeping a notebook of ideas for projects that I would like to pursue one day. There are far more than I will ever be able to work on, but my hope is that I’ll have the opportunity to embark on at least some of them in the future.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

The desk furthest back in Academy library’s main reading room, next to the window—especially early on a Saturday or Sunday morning, with the morning light, or rain, falling on the cypress tree outside.